18 February 2012

Essential Blu-rays for New Owners

I’m now a bit past my first year as a Blu-ray owner, a member of the 1080 club. As with any advance in home video technology, I find it hard to believe I was able to survive without it previously. The visual revolution that the Hi-Def image offers is the most astonishing leap I’ve seen in home entertainment. It has altered the way I’ve looked at classic films, even ones I’ve seen numerous times.

My collection has gotten large over the last year—especially considering how frugal I am, but bargains are easy to find. My shelves include a panorama of cinema from the silent era to films that came out in theaters only a few months ago. Some discs have disappointed me. (Oh, Secret of NIMH, why did you forsake me?) Some have been adequate, steps up from DVD quality, but not astonishing. (The original Clash of the Titans.) And other have been so jaw-droppingly beautiful that it felt as if I were watching one of my favorite films for the first time. (Many examples coming up.)

This list isn’t of my personal favorite Blu-rays—although many of those are included. It’s a list of what I consider “essentials” for a Blu-ray owner. If you’ve just purchased a Blu-ray player and an HD TV, these are the discs you should consider purchasing to get the best experience for yourself and the people who will watch with you.

To give you a sense of my criteria for the list: I selected films that, for the most part, have a general viewer appeal and/or display Blu-ray technology at its best. In other words, these are the movies you can slap on to impress your friends. Many Criterion Collection discs are brilliant, but I can’t put their Godzilla disc here because it doesn’t have a very broad appeal, and even though it’s a great transfer, it doesn’t display Blu-ray at the height of its power. Airplane! is an endlessly re-watchable movie and great for parties, but it isn’t a piece of visual splendor. Captain America: The First Avenger is an fine Blu-ray and a fun film, but it isn’t at the complete mind-blowing level.

So here are the movies that I think you, as a current or future Blu-ray player owner, will get the most from in your library along with your particular favorite movies.

14. Tron: Legacy

I don’t think this is a good film. (My review.) I love the original (reviewed that, too), but this decades-later sequel is bland and fails to deliver on the ideas of the original. But it’s a superb visual experience, and this is a disc to pull off your shelf and pop into the player just to show off to your friends who still live in the “standard definition” world how sad and blurry that old world is. I saw the film in IMAX 3D when it was in theaters, and even I was impressed with the clarity of the image, the perfection of the blacks, the “pop” of the neon colors on the Blu-ray. The sound mix is also a thunderous joy, and gets the most from Daft Punk’s score, the one indisputably great part of the movie. From the moment the film was released on Blu-ray in early 2011, reviewers were calling Tron: Legacy one of the best Blus of 2011, and very few releases the rest of the year challenged it—although I’ll get to one of them later on this list. (From Blu-ray.com: “Legacy boasts one of the most gorgeous transfers of 2011 and it’s only March. . . . offers the AV presentation to beat this year.”) You don’t need to enjoy the film to let the power of its 1080p DTS Master Audio 7.1 immersion carry you away. End of Line.

13. The Complete Metropolis

Yes, I put a silent movie on this list. Think people won’t want to watch a silent movie? I beg to differ, and I’ve got Fritz Lang along to help me make my case. The German science-fiction classic Metropolis, returned to almost its original length after years of exhaustive work and restoration, is a revelation on Blu-ray. The 16mm elements inserted into the 35mm film to restore the missing scenes look fairly bad, but you can’t blame the film for that, since this lost footage was rescued after eighty years from a film vault in Buenos Aires. And the rest of the movie looks like it was shot yesterday. It looks better than The Artist, which is a newly shot silent movie. Show this to your friends and let them see the power of film restoration. Oh, it’s a great film as well, and the scope of its visual effects—this was the most expensive silent movie made at the time—works wonders on a Hi-Def screen.

12. Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition

Wow, does Psycho look amazing on Blu-ray! I’ve read some complaints about the transfer on Blu-ray forums, but I personally can’t see a thing wrong with the amount of detail and texture and natural film grain present on the image. Just the way Anthony Perkins’s face fills up the screen as he leans forward to deliver his “Madhouse speech” is chilling viewed with such immediacy and clarity. It’s what the Blu-ray does for the film’s quieter moments, instead of the big shock sequences, that makes this a disc worth buying immediately. The movie becomes more intimate than ever before, as if you were sitting in that parlor eating a sandwich with Norman Bates as he tells you that we all go a little mad sometimes. The disc has one of the more impressive re-purposed 5.1 audio tracks, but thankfully keeps the original monaural track as well.

11. Manhattan

Keeping with black-and-white for the third film in a row, Manhattan is a talky comedy that also manages to be a visual masterpiece that captures New York City in the manner of classic still photography. It’s also a perfect example of how a Blu-ray can capture a film as it was meant to be seen in a theater without “revisionists” techniques. The natural grain, the full monaural DTS Master Audio sound, all give a sense of “film” that makes it seem as if you were sitting in a theater seat in a 1979 movie palace—probably in downtown Manhattan. That’s quite an achievement. The film is also funny and touching and a masterwork from a master filmmaker. There are zero special features, but Woody Allen films never have them anyway. This disc only came out a few weeks ago (accompanied by Annie Hall) and is already enjoying a steady place in my player to remind me of how great Blu-ray came make great films look.

10. Goldfinger

Another film that will explode people’s heads with how damn great it appears. Lowry Digital’s handling of the 1964 James Bond adventure is more beautiful than the film has probably ever looked. Of the films on the list, this is one I’ve seen the most times previously, and watching the Blu-ray made me feel as if I’d never seen it before. It is literally jaw-gapping and seizure-inducing with the pleasure that comes from the Hi-Def image. The movie’s a helluva crowd-pleaser, too. Blu-ray owners need to have at least one James Bond film in their collection, and if they pick only one, it’s got be Goldfinger: the best movie of the long-running series, with a transfer that is almost transcendental. (Honestly, I have yet to come across an even slightly sub-par James Bond release on Blu-ray. This is a franchise that the studio knows deserves the finest treatment it can provide, and fans that will “let ‘em have it” if they screw up.)

9. Inception

I think everyone will eventually own a copy of 2010’s most influential and beloved movie—a film on its way to science-fiction classic status. (My original review.) Perhaps one day it will come free with the purchase of any Café Latte at whatever coffee shops survived the information apocalypse. Director Christopher Nolan’s crisp, chilly visual style is an ideal fit for Hi-Def, as is the dynamic soundtrack where the soundscape is an essential part of the story. I considered listing either Batman Begins or The Dark Knight here in this slot, but even though both movies should end up in Blu-ray owners’ libraries, Inception manages to impress with its transfer even more than the two Nolan Bat-films. It’s a film to savor again and again, and the only reason I didn’t rate it higher on this list is that you probably already thought about buying it or have bought it already, and it seems almost redundant for me to bring it up. Dream a little bigger, darling.

8. Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition

Hand-animated films present a tricky issue on Blu-ray. Many purists (I count myself one) dislike the extensive use of digital noise reduction (DNR) to wipe away the natural film grain on older movies. But when it comes to animated films, it seems appropriate to clean up the image to the point that the film looks like the cells as they were on the animator’s table. Disney has done stellar work on its classic animated catalog, releasing them as pristine works that look better than they ever did in theaters. I could pick any of Disney’s early animated Blu-rays for this spot, but Dumbo is the one from which I think viewers will get the most repeat viewings: it’s short, funny, and less likely to terrify children into a coma. The package of extras is also deep and wide. The re-purposed 7.1 (seven channels!) is also a surprise: I expected a terribly unnatural re-working of the original mono to spread distracting sound effects across the rear channels (something that’s happened a few too many times for comfort on other Blu-rays), but the new mix feels faithful to the source. The original monaural is available as well, so even if you don’t like the new mix, you can always go back to the theatrical experience.

7. Gladiator: Sapphire Series (Remastered)

It won an Oscar. (My 10-Anniversary celebration.) It has speaker-shaking sound-effects action. It captures ancient Rome in the glorious style of the old epics of the 1950s. There’s a load of extras, many of them fantastic historical information that enhance the film in way much different from the usual “behind the scenes” extras. All your friends will gladly sit down with you to watch it and scream “Unleash hell!” It’s a winning situation all around, presented in a glittering, glowing transfer. Okay, maybe some people will label my inclusion of the film here as a “guy thing,” but I’ve discovered that Gladiator does tend to cross genders for appreciation. Of all the Oscar-winning films available on Blu-ray right now, this is probably the best one to grab for new owners. (Ben-Hur is astonishing, but it’s very pricey for a single film, and so I chose not to include it here. But consider that a recommendation. I’m not thrilled with Unforgiven’s sound mix.) By the way, this the 2010 re-pressing of the Blu-ray, which was first released in a subpar transfer in 2009. To make sure you get the remastered version, look on the lower right of the back of the case. If the phrase “2-Disc Set” does not appear above the Paramount logo, it’s the remastered version and you may buy with confidence.

6. Star Trek (2009)

Another crowd-pleasing film that’s good for a Friday night popcorn gathering. (My original review.) It’s also one of the best transfers I’ve seen on a recent theatrical release. The clean and sharp world of “Star Trek” is ideally suited for Blu-ray’s 1080p canvans, and the technicians behind the transfer managed to capture the theatrical experience on the disc with eye-popping fidelity. The sound mix is a great example of the other lossless audio codec, Dolby TrueHD, getting a full workout. This is another film that’s guaranteed to make your friend plunk down on the couch and sit through it to the end credits. Especially amazing is that people who don’t care about “Star Trek” in general will willingly let this Blu-ray take them where no home video has gone before. (Okay, I admit that was corny.)

5. The Incredibles

Tron: Legacy was one of 2011’s best discs—but this one is the best of a crowded year where the format reached new heights. All the Pixar films look amazing on Blu-ray, which should be no surprise considering they always exist in the digital world and are crammed with details that a Hi-Def image can best realize: each frame of a Pixar film is a work of art to explore, from character expressions down to the wood grain on the shelves and the fibers on the suits. I could have placed Up or WALL·E in this slot; they both astonish on Blu-ray. In fact, WALL·E was the first disc I slid into my new player after I hooked it up. But I’ll finally have to go with 2004’s The Incredibles as the “essential” for this list because 1) it’s my favorite Pixar film, and 2) it has the best trunk-full of extras I’ve come across on a Pixar Blu-ray. This is a Blu-ray experience to savor: stop on any frame, anywhere in the film, and marvel at the artistry.

4. North by Northwest: 50th Anniversary Edition

My father loves watching Blu-rays to savor how great the picture quality is, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a stunned reaction from him as when he first saw the images on this disc. Aside from being the most generally enjoyable Hitchcock picture (Psycho is a bit on the bleak side, wouldn’t you say?), North by Northwest was shot in one of the film formats that best leaps onto Blu-ray: VistaVision. This photographic process was the Hi-Def experience of its day, blowing away standard 35mm films with a clarity that wowed audiences and challenged filmmakers with the power it had to capture details at a distance. Blu-ray feels like it was made to exhibit VistaVision prints, and no other disc on the market right now draws so much enjoyment from the old format. (The Searchers is close, but I think North by Northwest’s transfer is superior. It’s also a better film for a general audience, even though The Searchers is one of my favorite movies of all time.)

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy (Extended Edition)

Come on, do I need to explain much here? This is the Star Wars of our new era; what George Lucas utterly failed to create in his three lazy prequels, Peter Jackson achieved with this encompassing trilogy that re-fashioned the blockbuster, raised the bar for spectacle, and ignited a new era of fantasy filmmaking. The boxed set offers reference quality picture and sound (oh man, crank up the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King and experience aural Nirvana) and the same hours and hours and hours of bonus materials from the previous set. If you feel like purchasing the six-film Star Wars set and living with the prequels taking up space anywhere in your home, go ahead. (Hell, I did.) But I think your money is much better spent here. Do you believe any of your friends want to sit through The Phantom Menace again?

2. Alien Anthology

One review site referred to this Blu-ray collection as the “Killer App,” the disc set that make you decide to buy a Blu-ray player in the first place just so you could watch it. And they are 100% correct. The collection of the four “Alien” movies pushes the capabilities of the Blu-ray technology to the limit, featuring over sixty hours of extra content, on-screen navigation during the films to access any of the features, multiple versions of each movie, and probably a pack of other things I haven’t even had time to discover yet. I think I’ve only experienced about 25% of the features on it, and I bought this a year ago. In fact, it almost seems irrelevant to mention how great all four films look and sound, especially Alien, which plunges viewers into the detail of its design—both the alien world and the Nostromo—in a way that makes every other home video version of it released seem like it was shot on Super 8 from a high school staging of the movie. And if you never liked Alien3 that much, your mind is about to be changed.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t just a classic film, possibly the greatest science-fiction movie ever crafted. It’s also a home theater system test pattern, and has been since the invention of home video. A film over forty years old is still the standard for what a movie should look like. Photographed in astonishing 70mm with six-track stereo sound, blessed with brilliant crystalline effects that still blow people away, and orchestrated as a visual ballet, there is no reason that 2001: A Space Odyssey shouldn’t be on every Blu-ray owner’s shelf. It should be the first thing ordered. (It was for me.) It doesn’t matter if you like the film or not. Who cares? What you like is irrelevant here. This is the visual marvel of epic scale cinema, and its Blu-ray one of the marvels of that marvel. It should come bundled with every Blu-ray player, and it seems ludicrous that I even have to suggest purchasing it. This is a no-brainer.